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Paper Mask
(1991)

Director: Christopher Morahan   
Cast:
Paul McGann, Amanda Donohoe, Frederick Treves


Like many people out there, I have worked in a number of different jobs during my lifetime. Some of these jobs have been rewarding in a number of different ways, and I have pleasant memories when looking back at them. One of my favorite jobs was working one summer at a resource center for disabled people and their families as both an office worker and a receptionist. It felt good during the busy times to help all the people that came in for one reason or another. (When the office was not so busy was good as well, because I could catch up on my reading.) Another good job I had was when I taught English in Korea for a year. It was rewarding to know I was helping the various students in learning something important, and I met some interesting people. But there have also been some jobs I had in my past that I absolutely hated. One of them was my very first job, when my father "volunteered" me to mow the lawn one summer for one of his fellow workers. Not only did the guy's lawn have plenty of hills that made pushing the lawn mower a pain in the ass, I got paid less than minimum wage. (It was a similar tale on both points when my dad got me to mow our family's lawn for several summers.) Another job that I loathed was when I worked for a fast food restaurant. I got burned by the oil used to cook the French fries, I was always the one they called up when it was time to clean the filthy bathrooms, and the manager and my co-workers never treated me as part of the team.

Then there was the time I worked at a used book store. The telephone would always ring when I was dealing with complicated transactions with customers who were at the store, I would have to put out a large number of books outside the store each day in order to entice customers to come in (and rush outside to retrieve them when it started to rain... and it rained a lot), I would have to rush from one side of the store to another to find information for angry customers who demanded to know how much they were getting for the books they had brought in, and... well, I was glad when the store finally closed for good. As you can see, I have had some bad jobs in my life, just like you. As bad as those jobs were, at the same time I realize I was very lucky, because I could have had a job that was much worse. After my work at the fast food restaurant and hearing horrible on-the-job tales from one of my friends, I am lucky I never became a chef. I don't relish the idea of very early hours (or very late hours) I might have to work, or having to slave in a hot kitchen. I am also lucky that my poor sports skills meant that I never became an athlete. I don't like the idea of getting up early and exhausting myself all day while doing the same things over and over again. One job I am really glad I never got the notion to work towards was being a doctor. I was lucky to get the straight dope as a kid as to what I would first face when I read a Peanuts comic strip that revealed an aspiring doctor would have to spend eight years in medical school.

There are other reasons why I am glad I never became a doctor, not just because of the long and gruelling time I would have to spend in medical school. There's the fact that all that education, plus my room and board at the same time, would cost me a fortune, and I would have to face years of paying off my debts by the time that I graduated. Then there is the fact that I would have to spend a substantial amount of time as an intern, and I have heard many brutal stories about what interns go through, including the fact that they get little to no sleep because they have such long shifts. It wouldn't be clear sailing also after the internship was over, for I would have to find a position somewhere, and I might get stuck in the boondocks or some other unfavorable place in the country (though I guess you could argue that fact is true with a lot of jobs.) But what turned me off most of all from becoming a doctor was the idea that many people would be depending on me deeply. Their lives would be in my hands, more or less. What if I made a mistake? I don't think I could function well with having the lives of patients in my hands. I've never been totally at ease with any of the doctors I've seen knowing this, and I feel even more strongly about this after seeing Paper Mask. It not only paints a portrayal where mistakes with patients happen, but where doctors get away with it. It's not only a call for some kind of reform, but happens to be at times a very effective thriller that at times makes it almost agonizing to watch what happens.

The setting of the movie is in the medical field of England, focused almost entirely on one individual, a hospital orderly named Matthew Harris (McGann, Queen Of The Damned). Though the other hospital orderlies at the hospital where he works seem to be happy with the work they do, Matthew is unsatisfied. He is tired of this "working class bullsh*t", and longs to be doing something greater in nature. He sees his chance not long after one of the doctors at the hospital dies in a car accident. Going through the dead doctor's personal papers, Matthew discovers that the doctor was applying for a position in a hospital in another part of the country. Matthew decides to impersonate the doctor and go as him to the scheduled interview. He has a successful interview, gets the job, and now has the responsibility of being a doctor in the emergency wing of the hospital. I know what you're thinking. You are thinking, "There's no way he could get away with this! Maybe, just maybe, he could get away with it in the interview, but there's no way he'd manage to get away with it when on the job!" I admit that's what I thought when I first read the premise of the movie. But the movie shows us that someone could possibly get away with it in real life. What we see of his interview shows the hospital heads more concerned with small talk than discussing experience and work skills. And remember that Matthew was an orderly, and we see him early on in the movie learning various medical procedures in this position by observation.

To the movie's credit, it doesn't make Matthew's work in his new position a walk in the park despite his experience and the incompetent hospital board that interviewed him. There is a great scene when it is his first day on the job, and instantaneously he finds himself over his head. He finds himself alone and doesn't know most of the things he's supposed to do, and watching him fumbling around trying to get things done successfully (one of the emergency room patients actually gives him the correct instructions for one point!) is agonizing to watch. In fact, at the end of the day, Matthew doesn't think he can continue on with the work and seriously thinks of quitting. When he gets the confidence to continue, it's still not easy sailing; one of the hospital heads has noticed his sloppy work on the first day and warns him with the threat of firing if he doesn't shape up. But Matthew gets a lucky break shortly afterwards, in the form of a nurse (Donohoe, Castaway) who works in the emergency room with him. She sees Matthew as just suffering from newbie jitters, like other new doctors have suffered in the past. She instructs Matthew and teams up with him with patients, and with her help and guidance it is no wonder Matthew is able to keep up his deception. Anyone could be a doctor with all this help. This is not the only scathing look at the medical profession. Orderlies and doctors are seen lounging around on company time, compassion is looked for in doctors instead of medical experience, and doctors brag about the patients they have "killed" yet their mistakes have been forgiven.

Not only are the doctors seen in a negative light, the hospitals themselves that are seen in this movie are not a very inviting place. We are shown old buildings that are showing their age, with very narrow corridors and small rooms - nothing like the slick hospitals I have seen personally in my home turf and portrayed in American movies and TV shows. Although I have never been to a hospital in England, what we see here seems to be how it must be in a lot of hospitals there. The production values of the movie are generally solid elsewhere as well. Although this was a low budget movie, the grit and seediness seen here just add to the feeling that what we are seeing is real; a slick look would have distanced the viewer from what happens. As a result of these convincing production values, the actors in the movie have a heavier than average burden, since they have to be real people in this real environment. All of the actors in the movie, fortunately, are up to the task. Most of the performances are somewhat low-key (though wisely not too low-key), believable for a profession that wearies its participants with all its constant human misery. But the best thing about the movie has to be Christopher Morahan's direction. He leaves very little relief to the viewer once Matthew is hired by the hospital. Every scene (and I mean every) where Matthew is required to hide his true identity and put on an act is unbearably tense. You'll keep asking yourself: Will he get away with it? What if something goes wrong? To find out the answers to those questions, you'll just have to find a copy of the movie.

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See also: Dr. Cook's Garden, Mansion Of The Doomed, The Sender

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